Is it inevitable we gain weight around menopause?
In this Lunch & Learn, we were joined by Jackie Lynch, a Registered Nutritional Therapist, discussing menopause, weight gain and diets, with practical advice and top tips.
Henpicked: One question we’re so often asked: Is it a given that I’ll gain weight during menopause?
Jackie Lynch: No, but it’s not unusual. There might well be a hormonal reason. As our ovaries stop producing oestrogen our adrenal glands take over to produce a weak form of oestrogen post menopause. The trouble is, they also produce our stress hormones. And if there’s too much stress then they prioritise the production of stress hormones. If the plan B can’t come into play and give you oestrogen, your body moves to plan C, which is to store fat cells to give us energy we need. It’s the body’s way of trying to hang onto oestrogen.
There are more indirect factors to weight gain, too. Although diet is the key player for weight management, the role of exercise is particularly important in reducing stress hormones. At this time of life, many women lose body confidence. They might not want to go to the gym as they think everyone is younger and slimmer. Or they might have pelvic floor issues and leak a bit of urine when they do high impact. So they turn to comfort eating, and it becomes a vicious circle.
Henpicked: Are there any strategies you can recommend to avoid this downwards spiral?
Jackie Lynch: Many women will have been on diets on and off for years. But we need to look at how we eat as well as what we eat. I recommend a mindful approach to eating. If you can get that right it’s a huge player in controlling binge eating, sugar cravings, overeating and portion management. In my clinical experience these are often far more the issue than what we’re eating. Of course if you regularly eat several large bars of chocolate it might lead to weight gain. But really, you need to be looking at how not to eat several bars.
Think about the fact that digestion starts in the mouth, far earlier than you’d expect. As we smell lovely food cooking we salivate, and that saliva produces digestive enzymes, amylase which breaks down carbohydrates. Chewing food correctly makes a difference to our body’s ability to break down carbs. It also releases enzymes which activate our ‘satiety response’, which tells us when we’re full.
Henpicked: Sometimes knowing we’re full is easier said than done. Do some of us not have this stop button?
Jackie Lynch: We need to recognise it and learn to use it. The first tactic of mindful eating is eat slowly. Finishing first is loser’s game. Challenge yourself to finish last if you’re eating with people. If you’re eating alone, try to put your fork down in between mouthfuls so you’re not wolfing it down.
Think back to the heady days when we used to eat out. You might have a starter and main course and plan to have no dessert. But the efficient waiter brings a menu quickly, you order a pudding and later on feel really full. But if the waiter is slower, then you’re more likely to realise you’re already full and not eat anything else. Your body has had time to realise it doesn’t need any more.
Henpicked: How many meals a day would you recommend?
Jackie Lynch: It really depends how much you’re eating. I think grazing can be a problem as it’s mindless eating. Try to only eat when you’re sitting down, as that will stop you grabbing stuff on the go. Make breakfast a good meal, rich in protein and fat such as eggs, nuts and seeds. This combination stimulates the satiety response, so you’re not looking for biscuits mid morning. If you stop snacking and have bigger, better meals that will make a difference straight away.
Henpicked: Many of us overindulge then give up trying to be healthy. How can we get around this?
Jackie Lynch: Easter’s a bit tricky. Just get the chocolate eggs out the way, you know it’s going to happen! Then go back to your good habits. Make a meal an event. Think about making the table up, having a nice balanced meal and enjoying it.
Henpicked: We’ve talked about how to eat. How about what to eat?
Jackie Lynch: The key is to keep a good blood sugar balance all the time. This keeps you steady and stops the release of more stress hormones that will generate more sugar cravings. Have protein and fibre with every meal and snack. You can have animal proteins like eggs, meat, fish, or plant proteins like soya, quinoa, nuts and seeds, and pulses. There is a trend now now for plant-based proteins, but some people do respond better to animal protein, as it’s generally more easily absorbed by your body and can make you feel fuller. Try a few eggs with smoked salmon, then add fibre, such as a piece of wholemeal toast or wilted spinach and mushrooms. It’s a winning combination.
Henpicked: Do we need to consider portion sizes?
Jackie Lynch: Plates are much bigger than they used to be. We really need a fist size of protein, one of starchy carbs and two more of veg. Our plate sizes have increased by 60% since the 1950s. So look at the size of your plate, or be careful what you put on there. The same goes for alcohol. We have trend of big glasses, you put a normal amount of wine in and it looks like nothing, so you slosh a bit more in!
Henpicked: How can we move away from the binge/starve cycle?
Jackie Lynch: Women in mid life need nutrition. This is not the time to be doing fad diets, we needs fats and carbs. One plan I like a lot is the 16:8, where you eat within an eight-hour window and fast for 16 hours, including overnight. So you might have breakfast a bit later and dinner earlier. I’ve got no patience with counting calories, at some point you’ll end up stopping. Nor elimating major food groups, unless you have good reason. Eating your combination of fibre, fat and protein within this shorter window helps your body move into repair and restore mode overnight.
I’m also not a fan of longer fasting. It’s hard on the body and anyone dealing with stress should steer clear of it.
Henpicked: Can we change our metabolism?
Jackie Lynch: One problem here is that many of us have been dieting on and off for years. So our metabolism doesn’t know if it’s coming or going, and goes into camel mode and hangs onto food. Your metabolism needs to know it can trust you. Get your blood sugar in balance, and over time this will happen. Patience and consistency are everything. We don’t want to hear that but it’s the way forward.
We need to find what works well for us. If eating a later breakfast isn’t for you, then make sure you’re getting a good, balanced diet that keeps your blood sugar steady.
Henpicked: Would you advise having our main meal at lunchtime rather than in the evening?
Jackie Lynch: I often encourage people to eat starchy carbs like rice, potato or pasta at lunchtime rather than evening, as we’re often more sedentary later on. This does depend on your level of physical activity. If you have a very active job or are in training you might find you need carbs at both meals. Larger meals earlier in the day can also help if you struggle with bloating at night.
Henpicked: Can it be hard to get enough protein on a vegan diet?
Jackie Lynch: You do have to work harder. All animal proteins are complete proteins, they contain all essential amino acids in one easy package, the body uses them to manufacture the remaining amino acids we need. There are a few complete plant proteins, such as soya, quinoa and hemp. Beans, lentils, nuts and seeds contain some of the essential amino acids, but not all. You need to rotate. So don’t just have kidney beans, have black beans, soya beans, so you’re getting that variety. I’d encourage vegans to have at least one complete protein in their diet every day.
Henpicked: Are there any foods to help our digestive system kickstart or reduce bloating?
Jackie Lynch: There are lots of reasons you get bloated. Look at the mechanics of digestion. Are you chewing your food properly? You don’t need to do it 32 times or whatever the internet says, but make sure you’re savouring and breaking down your food, and not expecting your stomach to do the work of your mouth. Check with your doctor if it’s unusual bloating. If it’s your metabolism and things are just sitting there, fat can help – but not any old fat. Essential fats. Things like nuts, seeds, avocado, hummus: these all help to speed up metabolism.
Jackie Lynch is the founder of the WellWellWell Nutrition Clinic where she specialises in women’s health and the menopause.
She’s a regular contributor of nutrition features for the Mail on Sunday and her clinical work has inspired her to publish 2 books: Va Va Voom: The 10-Day Energy Diet (Headline, 2017) and The Right Bite: Smart Food Choices for Eating on the Go (Nourish 2016).
She’s the host of the popular diet & lifestyle podcast, The Happy Menopause and her new book The Happy Menopause: Smart Nutrition to Help You Flourish was published in October.